I’m meeting my friend Nick for dinner downtown. At 6:30, I feel that cell-phone-sized hum in my pocket, the sensation these days of incoming language. A text from Nick: “Running 10 mins late.” After considering a number of replies (the tried-and-true “All good,” the Australian-inflected “No worries,” the deeply sarcastic, “I kill u”), I land upon a response: “No prob.” Cool, understated—and yet, as I’m on the brink of hitting send, I notice how meager those one-and-a-half words look on my phone. I search my symbols. Ah, that’s better. Hear me, poets, we shall dine at 7:10! For, I declare it: “No prob!”
The inboxes of my life teem with such emphatic nullities (i.e., “Sounds good!,” “So yes!!,” “LOL all over the room!!!”). For a long time, I feared my circle of electronic correspondents succumbed too blithely to the temptation of exclamation. But then I read David Shipley and Will Schwalbe’s new manual on e-mail etiquette, Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home. Already billed as the “genre’s Strunk and White,” Shipley and Schwalbe have attempted to compose a thin volume of good taste in e-communication. To a large extent they succeed. Their book is full of sound advice, such as, “The ease of email encourages unnecessary exchanges,” and “The fact that email defies time zones also means that it can defy propriety.”
Given Shipley and Schwalbe’s evenhandedness, their merry endorsement of exclamation marks comes as a surprise. ” ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they write. ” ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.” To appreciate the unorthodoxy of such counsel one need only have attended a middle-school writing class, where teachers have long forbidden overindulgence in the banger as a kind of literary self-abuse. One ought to show emphasis, the argument goes, through subtlety of style and construction, rather than indicate it with a tail of exclamation points. Elmore Leonard advises, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Declaim the original Strunk and White, in their legendary sotto voce: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.” Their example? ” ‘It was a wonderful show!’ should be, ‘It was a wonderful show.’ ” (Forget the show—how ‘bout that conference!)
Indeed the “wonderful” is what the exclamation point was originally devised to connote. A relatively recent addition to the punctuation clan, it first appeared in print around 1400 and was known until 1700 as a “mark of admiration,” though admiration in this case meant something like “wonderment” (of a religious variety). Some scholars believe it derives from the Latin Io (meaning joy). Io, the theory goes, might have been rendered with its second letter under the first, thus producing an exclamation mark.
As Shipley and Schwalbe would have it, the advent of electronic communication creates a greater need for pre-modern wonderment. In their view, the exclamation is no mere crutch for the lazy writer but an essential tonic against the grayness of electronic communication: “Because email is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be.” But what does it mean that e-mail is without affect? Is a blank piece of loose leaf somehow rich with the stuff?
In truth, the exclamation point is an antidote not to the intrinsic dullness of the medium (as Shipley and Schwalbe suggest) but to the vapid back-and-forths the medium facilitates. For centuries, the act of writingmandated a tremendous exertion of labor, so that scribes committed to the page only texts of supreme import. (Imagine a team of tonsured monks toiling for decades on an illuminated manuscript that read, “WTF … c u l8r?”) For centuries, that which was written had to deserve to be written. Today’s technology, however, allows us to transmit doodles of thought (e.g. “Running 10 mins late”) we never would have deemed worthy of print. It’s not that we know we aren’t writing well—and so tack on some exclamations!!!—it’s that we know what we’re saying doesn’t deserve to be written at all.
Hence the salvation that exclamation offers. Like 24-hour cable newscasters, we compensate for the unworthiness of our meanings by being emphatic! (A good rule of thumb: The more insignificant the message, the more exclamations it will require.) It’s a Freudian reaction formation: I really mean it! I loved the conference! OMG did I LOVE it!!!!!!
In this sense, the abuse of the exclamation mark results from a danger that is intrinsic to e-communication. Sentences were once composed under threat of permanence, and it was this threat—the specter of an unchangeable document forever to be read and reread—that kept a writer honest and endowed the humble meeting of pen and page with the consequence and irrevocability of action. No longer, however. E-communication has divorced the written word from the permanent—we are still “writing” but into a kind of semi-amnesic, digital void, so that actual thought and inflated chat often come at the same falsely loud, and yet easily unheard, volume. (Indeed, because e-mails are so often ephemeral, it is easy to forget how permanent and consequential they can be. Think of Michael “Brownie” Brown, the former FEMA head, whose infamously glib e-mails at the height of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort open Send.)
To risk sounding like an old schoolmarm: If everything is emphasized, nothing is. Pedestrian e-mails “kicked up a notch” or juiced up on bangers simply contribute to the noise.
But that doesn’t mean the exclamation point should be tossed to the scrap heap. In fact, a stable of contemporary writers is waging an ingenious campaign to redeem the devalued punctuation mark. I’m thinking of people like Rebecca Curtis, Sam Lipsyte, and Arthur Bradford, who have all been influenced by Denis Johnson, a modern master of Io. No curmudgeon, Johnson sprinkles exclamation points at a rate that would dizzy Elmore Leonard and with such ingenuity that they do capture a true, and nearly religious, “wonder.” Most critically, they attend moments of fragile feeling rather than, say, wild interconnectedness. Moments that might easily escape notice (especially if you have your nose in a phone), and moments of quiet, too. Take Johnson on a woman’s scream after receiving news of her husband’s death: “What a pair of lungs!” Or Johnson on an MS patient in a hospital: “No more pretending for him!” Or Johnson on pink baby rabbits: “Little feet! Eyelids! Even whiskers!” That’s better than any conference I’ve been to.